Debating the Future of the Two-Party System

National Journal

Brendan Nyhan, an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College, accused me last week of issuing "hyperbolic warnings" about how social change and disillusioned voters threaten the two-party system. I plead guilty, and want to address the jury.

Nyhan produced  stories from as far back as 2005 to suggest that I predicted major changes in the U.S. political system "even after the previous claims have been proven false." I disagree on the quote, and will explain why later.

As Nyhan pointed out, in mid-January I wrote: "The existing parties will dramatically adapt to the times (a demographically challenged GOP has the farthest to go), or voters will demand and get alternatives. An independent presidential bid is increasingly likely. The rise of new parties is not out of the question."

The professor's counter arguments are compelling, and my reporting suggests he is far from alone in his skepticism -- particularly among professors of political science and government. His post in Columbia Journalism Review raises a few issues I'd like to share.

Just because it hasn't happened, doesn't mean it won't. I have not predicted that a third party would successfully claim the presidency. But I have argued that a disruptive force may rise from outside the Democratic and Republican parties in response to unhappy voters. The lack of credible alternatives to the Democratic and the Republican parties in recent cycles does not mean, as Nyhan asserts, that "the previous claims have been proven false."

I believe that Ross Perot, Pat Buchanan, Howard Dean and even Wesley Clark are examples of how a political system can be challenged by a disaffected electorate, even in the absence of a strong candidate. In particular, Dean's campaign illustrated the magnifying effect of technology. What if Perot and Buchanan had access to the Internet?

Rather than proving Nyhan's point that no threat to the two-party system exists, these insurgent campaigns were signs that the establishment was already in trouble. Further evidence emerged in 2008.

Nicco Mele, a Harvard Kennedy School professor who worked for Dean and on Barack Obama's 2004 Senate campaign, said the president advanced the case against institutional politics when he defeated Hillary Clinton for the 2008 Democratic nomination. "Obama's win was just the beginning. Changes in the accessibility of information and the ability to quickly organized people to solve complex problems are leading to shifts in the distribution of power," Mele writes in his upcoming book, "The End of Big." 

A senior official inside the Democratic National Committee told me that he considers Obama to be the head of an independent party. The president built an infrastructure outside the DNC, the official argued, and wields powers once monopolized by the DNC: Fundraising, messaging and voter persuasion.

In a sense, we already have a third party -- the BOP, Barack Obama Party. Isn't it possible that Obama paved a path for a more radical readjustment?

Institutional barriers can be overcome. Nyhan correctly underscores the staying power of the two major parties. They are imposing institutions. But it would be a mistake to assume they are impregnable in this era of institutional disruption. Do you have an ITunes account?  Ever shop at Rent from Netflix? Get your news online? Not too long ago, the music, publishing, movie and media industries had massive and monopolistic institutional advantages. They are now under siege.

"The speed with which outside challengers can maneuver unencumbered by the hierarchy and weight of traditional institutions leaves the political establishment dangerously exposed," Mele writes in "The End of Big," a book asserting that government, corporate and educational institutions face irrelevancy in a world where individuals are connected instantly, constantly and globally.

"We have reached a critical juncture," he continues. "If we sit back and do nothing, the two Big Parties will continue to lose influence, and the public good will suffer at the hands of small groups with rabid, fringe views."

There is a difference of opinion between political scientists and political professionals. In the last six weeks, four members of Congress, three GOP consultants, five Democratic consultants and two CEOs have told me they think we will see one or both major parties either transformed or weakened by challenges from outside the establishment. "There's a revolution starting," said Mark McKinnon, former consultant to President George W. Bush and co-founder of "No Labels," a bipartisan group that some view as a stalking horse for an independent political movement.

On the other hand, Nyhan subscribes to a school of thought -- popular among professors of political science and government -- that parties are evolving rather the declining. The hierarchical, centralized model that worked in the 19th and 20th century is giving way to a network of affiliated interest groups, PACs and constituencies loosely organized around a dominant brand and set of policies, Nyhan told me in a telephone interview Monday. Under this theory, the modern political party includes partisan blogs and media organizations.

This could explain why so many political professionals are willing to pontificate about a potential third party: Individually, they are losing influence as the parties decentralize and their reaction is to assume the worst for the entire system.

I could be wrong. I don't know enough about politics or the future to predict what will happen to the two-party system. I do believe conditions are ripe for upheaval: Deep voter disaffection; new technologies that empower consumers; democratization of political money, messaging and voter targeting; and finally, major national problems that need to be fixed.

Nyhan and I agree that the status quo is changing. We just have different hunches about what might replace it.